Community Engagement - Insights from LG Professionals IPR Conference Panel Discussion
Arguably one of the most essential parts of the democratic process, community engagement can take a myriad of forms. In September, Redman Solutions were fortunate to host a panel discussion at the LGPro NSW Integrated Planners Conference in Newcastle. The session focussed on how three NSW councils approach community engagement and what works best for them.
The insightful panel included Michelle Jack, Senior Corporate Strategy and Performance Officer, Wollondilly Shire Council; Luke Farr, Community Stakeholder Engagement Lead, Lake Macquarie City and Rachelle Robb, Director Corporate and Commercial Services, Orange City Council. Matt Pearce from Redman Solutions facilitated the session.
Key themes of trust, transparency and relevance were prevalent, and during the 90 minutes, each panellist provided examples of how they engage diverse communities, create authenticity and measure what matters.
The discussion shed light on how modern councils are applying traditional engagement strategies and adapting them to suit the changing nature of residents. As an organisation dedicated to enabling councils to be more transparent, effective and accountable, we were enlightened by the conversation and examples provided.
Here’s a breakdown of the key insights discussed.
Community Engagement - what does it mean to you?
Voices, relationships and listening - the panel agreed on their true definition of community engagement. While Michelle reiterated the need to actively build relationships and create open dialogues, Luke explained the importance of using feedback to enrich communities’ lives.
"Community engagement is about councils understanding the importance of people having the opportunity to be involved in decisions that affect their lives," he said. "It’s about listening and setting a clear agenda of what we intend to do with the feedback we receive and making sure people are aware of engagement and have the opportunity to participate if they choose to."
Rachelle summarised her definition of community engagement as "hearing everyone’s voice. Listening to it and then acting upon that."
Community engagement is about councils understanding the importance of people having the opportunity to be involved in decisions that affect their lives.
Engaging communities at the right stages
Redman Solution’s latest Insights Report uncovered that some councils struggle to get engagement from the community in some of the initial planning stages. Ultimately, this can result in pushback on some initiatives when it might be too late to change and create the perception that council is out of touch or frustrations within internal teams.
The panel agreed that this was a challenge across each council and spoke about how they try to alleviate this during the planning and delivery stages.
Michelle mentioned the importance of the IAP2 spectrum and how Wollondilly Shire use it to enable communication between council and community.
"This is a challenge that is common across all councils. It’s about utilising the IAP2 spectrum as a tool transparently, authentically and understanding that if we’ve come from a place where there is a lot of mistrust with council, that trust isn’t going to be rebuilt overnight just because we said we’ve listened to you. Trust can be broken quickly, but it takes a lot of time to rebuild, and you need to follow through and do what you say you’re going to do. You need a strong communications campaign that constantly links back to what people said in a consultation and what plans you’re putting in place."
Luke elaborated on how Lake Macquarie City identifies key projects and takes a three-step approach to community engagement. Therefore allowing residents to be involved and see their feedback result in action.
"We identify key projects that we know will have a great interest in the community. We then look to go out with pre-engagement to get the communities thoughts on what’s working and what’s not working," he said. "From that feedback, we then prepare a discussion paper where we will come back with the community and check in with them - have we interpreted what you told us correctly? This way, you can iron out issues before a report goes to council recommending public exhibition. The community then has three opportunities for feedback, they have had the opportunity to be involved, have their say, and can see their feedback interpreted into the draft strategy. This potentially allows for a smoother public exhibition period."
There was a consensus that communication is vital when engaging communities at the right time. Rachelle also elaborated on her concept of The Engagement Revolution to avoid engagement fatigue.
"We tend to be engaging with the same sector of the community over and over again, and we don’t actively go out and hear the voices of the whole community and then get that groundswell of support. The Engagement Revolution is about having continual dialogue. How do you identify key priorities, how do you champion them through the lifecycle from project initiation to delivery, and how do you look at the sentiment of your community? You need to have a continual conversation across many channels to elevate those voices."
We tend to be engaging with the same sector of the community over and over again, and we don’t actively go out and hear the voices of the whole community and then get that groundswell of support.
From left to right: Matthew Pearce, Rachelle Robb, Luke Farr, Michelle Jack
The role of authentic storytelling
"You need to invest in your narrative." Rachelle expressed the importance of having your own narrative, and the panel agreed that your narrative needs to come from the top down and be authentic to create trust.
Luke expressed how important it is for council to see the value of undertaking good community engagement and not just doing it to tick a box. He also provided an example of how Lake Macquarie City recently achieved this with their Lake Mac 100 Voices Summit.
"We brought together 100 diverse community members from across the city to participate in a one-day summit to help us prepare our draft community engagement strategy. This allowed us to be transparent and talk to our community about why we are here, what we intend to do with their feedback, and how giving up a day of their time will help us prepare for future engagement projects. It allowed us to be transparent with our community and build trust."
Michelle also acknowledged the importance of communicating with residents to increase confidence in future projects.
"Once you develop a strategy with a process that starts with community engagement, you can feel confident that the voices are valid and representative, and you can then trust in the direction and not be reactive."
Engaging a Diverse Community
While communicating clearly and exhibiting authenticity is essential, the panel recognised that communities are becoming increasingly diverse. They then delved into how they ensure every voice has the opportunity to be heard.
Rachelle explained how Orange City truly listens to their community and goes beyond traditional engagement strategies to have real conversations.
"It’s about being real. Understanding your segment, who they are, where they live and what they do. But also, who don’t you hear from?" She said. "We wanted to seek the voices that we never hear from. So we had teams go down to playgrounds to speak to mums, dads and kids to hear their feedback. We have so many frameworks, templates, processes and checkboxes in place, but have we forgotten the art of conversation and the art of engaging, not engagement? You need to find the voices that are never heard, start listening to them, and then somehow create a narrative."
Michelle extended this by reiterating the importance of knowing who you are talking to rather than simply pushing a message to your community.
"It shouldn't start with you wanting to share a message. You need to know the different groups of people you are talking to, what’s in it for them, what is relevant for them, and why they care. If we are actively building relationships, we need to understand who it is we are building a relationship with for them to have any chance of leaning into any type of communication with us."
Having real conversations and listening to your residents was a clear theme, and Luke also identified the importance of choosing the right channels to connect with the right community members.
"You can try all you like to attempt to engage your whole community - but if the story or messaging doesn’t resonate, then you’ve missed the boat," he said. "We understand that a mailout won’t necessarily attract a younger audience, but a social media campaign will. It’s about accessing the relevant person in your organisation who is the touchpoint and making sure the way you are seeking feedback is accessible for everyone."
It shouldn't start with you wanting to share a message. You need to know the different groups of people you are talking to, what’s in it for them, what is relevant for them, and why they care.
Measuring Diversity and the importance of data
Engaging diverse community members and creating authentic narratives are great, but how do you actively measure sentiment and engagement? The conversation around data and the need to capture the right information identified the need for local councils to use the right tools to measure what matters to help make evidence-based decisions.
"You need evidence to create a case, and that comes from data," said Rachelle. "You need to be able to listen, hear, understand and capture information. Many of us don’t tend to capture very well, and if we do, it’s a narrative, not trend data. It’s about having the right tools to monitor and measure community sentiment. Data is the science, and you can’t make clear decisions without evidence."
Luke then mentioned that while there can sometimes be an abundance of data, you need to be smart with the insights you have.
"There’s definitely data overload, but it’s about what we do with that data and how we can interpret it from our community. Our community tells us things through our community satisfaction survey, and we interpret that data, but it’s about looking at the data we’re receiving from community engagement projects and ensuring we’re not going back out and asking the community the same thing that they told us two or three consultations ago. It’s about being smart with your data."
Michelle admitted that measuring what matters is a challenge that she faces, and while social media can help you gauge sentiment, it’s important to always follow up on the so what.
"Measuring what matters is a challenge. How do you measure the vibe? How do you know if people are happy? At Wollondilly, we use Facebook a lot as our social media channel, and you start to see sentiment shift and community advocates form. But to Luke’s point, it’s also so important to follow up with the so what - we’ve measured this, and we’ve got these results, but so what? What are we doing with that internally, and what change is being influenced by this data? When we communicate that change, we’re building trust and encouraging people to provide more input."
There’s definitely data overload, but it’s about what we do with that data and how we can interpret it from our community.
Redman Solutions are proud Corporate Supporters of LG Professionals NSW and look forward to attending and hosting more thought-provoking discussions in the future. You can watch the full video of the Community Engagement Panel Discussion here.